Marriage in the Christian West wasn’t always as it is often conceived today, and the way it developed among the Anglo-Saxons is a good way of illustrating this.
Unless by means of some kind of trans-historical time warp you have been living in early medieval England, you can’t have failed to notice the ongoing religio-political hoo-hah about gay marriage.
Mind you, if you had been alive in the so-called Dark Ages, there was a good chance you would have known more about the development of marriage than many of the more, shall we say, noisy orators appear to know today.
If you have ever stopped to think about marriage in a historical context, you may have assumed that the Church had the monopoly on the institution. We do, after all, call it the sacred institution of marriage – though that also has something to do with the idea of God instigating marriage: Adam and Eve, two becoming one flesh, and all that marvellous stuff.
But it may come as a surprise to learn that the early English Church had a tough time getting its members to conform. For example, it is remarkable how long it took for the Church’s disapproval of polygyny (having more than one wife) to influence secular law.
Even though Christianity came to England by the end of the sixth century, and relatively swiftly became the official religion of its people, there is significant evidence that polygyny, in the form of concubinage, continued as a practice throughout most of the Anglo-Saxon period.
Remarkably, though the Church progressively became more involved in the formulating of laws, there is no law outlawing multiple wives until King Cnut legislated against concubinage in his laws (1020-23).
Now since there are extant Anglo-Saxon laws dating back to the seventh century, that makes nearly four centuries of Christian culture in England without a single mention in these laws about the typically un-Christian practice of polygyny that was being practiced during that time.
Oh, by the way, good Christian King Cnut had two wives himself: he was informally married to Ælfgifu of Northampton (1013) and legally married to Emma of Normandy (1017). We should no doubt call him a hypocrite, though I think it’s worth pointing out that a certain Archbishop Wulfstan of York (died 1023) probably had the king’s arm up his back, as it was the archbishop who actually wrote the law on behalf of his monarch.
Now I don’t wish to suggest that the Church sat silent on the matter of polygyny until this law was passed. No, indeed.
Both the great religious scholar Alcuin (died 804) and the abbot and homilist Ælfric of Eynsham (died c.1010) made their thoughts on concubinage very clear by stating that Christians weren’t to imitate the example of the Old Testament patriarch Abraham, who had both a wife, Sarah, and a secondary wife, or concubine, Hagar. So, from their point of view, it was to be only one wife for all.
(Ælfric, by the way, was always rather nervous about ‘dizzy’ laypeople misinterpreting the Bible, especially the Old Testament, particularly on matters to do with sex – and yes, he did use the word ‘dizzy’!)
Further, in Wulfstan’s Canon Law Collection (a collection of Church decrees taken from numerous continental works of the ninth and tenth centuries), the perspective of the church father Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is forcefully reiterated:
Concubinage 'numquam licuit, numquam licet, numquam licebit' (has never been permitted, never is permitted, never will be permitted)!
And then there are the penitentials – the books used by priests both as a teaching aid and a guide on matters of confession. They speak authoritatively against concubinage. Or do they?
'The man who has a lawful wife and also a concubine: no priest shall give him the Eucharist, nor perform any rites which one does for Christian men, unless he should turn to repentance. And if he has a concubine but no lawful wife, he should take charge of that to do as he thinks; nevertheless, he should know that he should have keeping of one, be it a concubine, be it a wife.' The Old English Penitential (probably tenth-century)
'He who has a wife and also a concubine: let no priest perform for him any rites associated with Christian men, unless he turns to repentance; he should have keeping of one, be it wife, be it concubine.' The Old English Handbook (probably early-eleventh-century and associated with Wulfstan)
It seems there was a bit of fudging going on when it came to marriage in Anglo-Saxon England. The first canon appears to give permission for a man to keep a non-legal wife or concubine as long as he does not also have a lawful wife. The second implies that he can choose a concubine over a wife.
Neither has the spirit of Augustine’s condemnation of all concubinage. It would appear, therefore, that on the matter of marriage there was a degree of compromise on the part of the early English Church, most likely because the practice of concubinage was not relinquished easily by Anglo-Saxon elite men.
You may be wondering why I mentioned at the outset the debate about gay marriage. Well, to add to this debate my own tuppence worth (as my grandma would have put it), I hope my historical observation about marriage and concubinage demonstrates that marriage hasn’t always been as fixed as people often imagine or claim – even in Christian communities. On the contrary, attitudes have varied and shifted; ideas about marriage have evolved over centuries.
This even goes for the wedding itself. At one time in Christian England, the Germanic tradition of a man taking home a woman (followed by the couple having sex) was most likely all that constituted the ceremony of marriage. The Old English word rihthæmed, signifying a lawful marriage, actually derives from the word for home (the hæm bit), suggesting that this was indeed the origin of English marriage ceremonies.
Furthermore, Christian couples didn’t necessarily feel obliged to be married inside a church by a priest. The Anglo-Saxon Church wanted them to, as certain penitentials show, but it took centuries before this requirement became enshrined in English secular law; and, significantly, well after the Anglo-Saxon period.
I guess what I am saying is that today’s ideas about marriage, various and complex as they are, have a sort of foundational history, though I'm not saying that the concept of gay marriage grew out of Anglo-Saxon England, for it appears to have been unheard of in early medieval England.
So how might all of this talk about early medieval marriage affect the way we conceive of marriage today?
Well, as we know, some gay people want to formalize their union, some do not; some straight people want to marry, some do not; some Christians – not all – feel anxious about marriage being undermined by non-normative unions. No doubt Anglo-Saxon concubinage, were it practiced openly today by Christians, would ruffle a few feathers.
Perhaps by reflecting on the historical contexts of marriage, it may just help us to appreciate that diversity in marriage has a long tradition. The arrival of gay marriage may then be seen to reflect or continue that tradition.
We may personally feel uncomfortable with gay marriage. Or even as a gay person, it may be that we wouldn't actually choose it for ourselves (yes, not all gay people like the idea), but hopefully the history of marriage in Anglo-Saxon England may just help us realize that gay unions are not the first queer marriages to appear.
Useful reading: Margaret Clunies Ross, ‘Concubinage in Anglo-Saxon England’, Past and Present 108 (1985), 3-34; Conor McCarthy, Marriage in Medieval England: Law, Literature and Practice (Boydell, 2004); Pauline Stafford, Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester University Press,1998)
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